Parenting on the Edge
No, I am not referring to some new fangled extreme sport involving dangling upside down from a great height while clinging on to a terrified infant. No, that would be too messy for the child and for me. Besides, it’s too messy already. What I am gibbering on about is as per the findings of a recent study: apparently I am a ‘new man’ or less pretentiously, a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) for short. I find the term ‘new man’ slightly inappropriate since I became a father for the first time at the relatively grand old age of thirty-two, as well as being aware that men have been at-home dads for a lot longer than the term suggests. Secondly, I barely actually ‘stay at home’ with my eleven month old son for any length of time, due to him being as opposite to agoraphobic as you can be.
Nevertheless, I am a new parent and previously, like any new parent to be, as soon as we found out we were having a baby, I found myself in a world I had never been in before. One where my wife and I regularly said names to each other and made faces. One where we wrote the next scan dates in our diaries (my wife’s diary) and held our breath nervously while we waited for confirmation that our baby was going to be healthy. The realisation that all you need to hear is this one fact, is sometimes overwhelming. Labour was the next challenging experience. Obviously not in the same way as it was for my wife, who spent thirty-six hours ensuring our son arrived safely, but the experience of being there, trying to support her through this, was a challenge. I definitely felt pre-armed from the time I’d spent at NCT classes. I knew that she might want or not want to talk, she might want to walk around or not move anywhere, she might need encouragement or not want any active support measures at all. She might have wanted to throttle me, but thankfully she didn’t. After hours of nail biting (me) and deep breathing (mostly her) our baby, Laurence, arrived on 2nd May with a set of lungs I attribute to his mum! I look back on that time as one where I am hopeful that I supported my wife to achieve the labour we had planned.
From the unknown world of pregnancy, then birth, we sleepwalked cautiously into the next new arena: taking our baby home! My wife and I had lucky timing in that, as she started maternity leave I had just graduated, so we had seven months where the whole family were together. Challenges included trying to sleep, trying not to have any poo disasters and trying to sleep. Did I mention that? Sleep is so damn important, but you don’t realise it until you think four hours is a great run. We really took advantage of this time, travelling to France, Switzerland and Tenerife, having weeks in Cambridge, London and Dorset. It was great and we felt so lucky to start family life this way. But then my wife’s return to work got closer and the next part of my life was about to begin – the stay-at-home dad bit was taking on its fullest meaning.
Every day I step out into the non-paternal primary carer world and let me tell you, it’s a new world to find myself in. It can even be daunting and scary, but most surprisingly for me personally, I have discovered that it can be a very lonely world. The experience hasn’t been what I expected. The area I trudge around regularly, baby in tow, is a self proclaimed easy going, tolerant and liberal town, but not so much if you do not have lactating breasts. I experience, on nearly a daily basis, being a father looking longingly in from the outside to a mum’s-only club. A club where I am seen as being either a bit weird for not wanting to hand over my son to the care of a nursery and wanting to look after him myself: “Is it your day to look after him?” “Erm…yeah?”, or a place where chatting goes silent when I enter the room. I understand that it may not feel comfortable to chat about your sex life after birth or incontinence of yourself or your baby in front of a man. Believe me, I don’t want to talk about either. But it seems to me that a lot of people pay lip service to relaxed ideas of gender roles, as when faced with a challenge to traditional parenting they recoil in horror.
My ire is not only reserved for mums. Recently, I tried to reach out to other SAHDs by organising an informal get together at a soft play centre, utilising a well known social media site. To be honest, I was fifteen minutes late, you know how babies can throw the notion of time keeping out of the window, but when I arrived, the centre was more bereft of men than a BBC 1970’s reunion party. It seems that I was the only man wanting to hook up with fathers of the same predicament. Or perhaps no other dads are the feeling the urge to congregate. Maybe they are happy enough to carry on sitting in the corner keeping their head down, while feeding their little one alone. Or maybe they have been better than me at integrating with other groups that exist.
The next dads meet up is on at Upsy Daisy’s Playgym on 2nd Tuesday of every month – contact Al on email@example.com for more details. Please spread the word.
Being a stay-at-home dad has inspired me to be a better person, not just a better dad, as I realise this little human being is a sponge and ready to soak up any life lesson I have to offer. I hope he learns from me that it’s important to do what feels right, even if others don’t always agree.